I've grown up in a Catholic household. I attended private school, uniforms and all, from kindergarten to eighth grade. This religious education has continued into my both my high school and college careers as I currently attend Gonzaga University, a Jesuit institution. Now, as an adult, I've come to find that my faith has been tested, changed, and molded based on events that have come to pass in my life and my own individuality.
For my religious education and upbringing, I have to thank my parents. Looking back, I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to attend Holy Family Kirkland from being so young, to my awkward teenage days. It was where I received each sacrament for the first time, up to confirmation and being trained to Eucharistic minister. Although it felt like going through the motions quite often, the uniform, the structure, and attending the all school masses each week allowed me to become a part of a much larger tradition, to involve myself in the history of the Catholic Church. I will always love the narrative of Jesus Christ and the development of God from the Old Testament to the New; and even still, there is so much I have yet to learn. Holy Family instilled in me many of the values I choose to abide by today, along with giving me some of the best friends I've ever had and a community I wouldn't ever want to leave. This was especially brought to my attention when, in eighth grade, my good friend's mother died after a year long battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer. This event tested my faith to no end, watching my friend and his family suffer for their incredible loss. I felt angry. How could this happen? And why? It was devastating. But, a prayer, or poem, put this all in a better light for me:
God saw that she was getting tired and cure was not to be;
So He put His arms around her and
Whispered, "Come with Me."
With tearful eyes we watched her
Suffer and saw her fade away.
Although we loved her dearly,
We could not make her stay.
A golden heart stopped beating.
Hard working hands to rest.
God broke our hearts to prove to us;
He only takes the best.
I found through this experience and these words, that a simple change in perspective can allow you to see the work of something greater at hand. It didn't take away the fact it was a tragedy, but reminded me that I have to trust that things are meant to happen exactly the way that they do.
All in all, the environment of my middle school was nurturing of prayer and following the ways of the Church, however, as I have grown I've found that I can find God in places other than the church, and that I can follow my faith without always following the Church. I like to see glimpses of God in my own way, allowing me to form my spirituality on my own terms, rather than just following the rule book. For example, when I see Mother Nature in her finest moments, like when I drove home from work one day and got to see the most beautiful sunset while going under a rainbow at the same time (yes that actually happened), or when I see people being truly kind to one another, or when little things that happen in my life bring to my attention how focused I am on things being my way, all reconfirm my belief in something much larger than us. This is also apparent to me when things aren't what I want in the moment, but turn out to have a better outcome because of the things I couldn't control. Which brings me to my favorite bible verse, "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed" (John 20:29). The verse always reminds me to have faith, even when I can't see the reason behind something, at the time it is presented to me.
In my high school years, my practicing of values and views of religion underwent constant testing. The new world of boys, drugs, and alcohol was more available to me than it ever had been. Now, my parents have always been there for me, offering guidance and helping me remain true to who I am, what I hold to be important, and to how I was raised. And in that process, they always trusted me. This allowed for my own growth in making my own decisions. In a way, I find that this played a role in my openness with them and my steering clear of most "bad" things that teens are assumed to be doing. Yes I had a drink or two, yes I had a boyfriend, and drugs simply never interested me. I remained a consistent church goer, but found myself making choices based more on my own values rather than always considering the church's. So at this point, I felt a sense of independence from the church, while staying active in it. It's important to make the distinction between faith and the church, that faith in one's personal beliefs while the church is the man-made institution of the Catholic religion, because there are things within the church that I do not agree with, while with that there are things that I do align with.
During this time, another event that was more than a struggle to deal with was my grandmother passing my freshman year. However, she didn't see it that way. She lived as a practicing Catholic and had more faith in the Lord than most. When she knew her time was coming, she told my mom not to worry, that she got to see her children grow and get married have their own kids; that she got to see grandchildren and knew that everyone was alright. Soon after she passed, I had a dream that I was in a fancy hotel room at night, where I saw a room with light coming from it. In the dream, when I walked into the room I found my grandma sitting with all of her friends. I began to cry and ran over to her and she said, 'don't worry, I'm OK," with a smile on her face. I got up and left, looking back to see her laughing and having ball with the other people in the room. That dream brought me a lot of serenity, and I don't believe it was a coincidence. Despite this, it still fills me with great sadness that she couldn't be around longer.
I also had the opportunity to travel to Italy during my junior year of high school. That is where I took the photo on the cover of this article. It is a "duomo" or cathedral in Milan. Talk about an inspiring location to help discover more about one's personal beliefs! The incredible architecture and history behind so many places throughout Italy, and of course the Vatican, renewed and refreshed my faith. We took a day trip into Switzerland where I learned of a story behind one of the church's mosaic pictures of Mother Mary. Apparently, long ago some young boys were playing outside the church, and they threw a stone at the mosaic. It hit Mary directly on her forehead and it began to bleed real blood.
As I finished high school and entered college, I was forced to do more soul searching than ever before. I was going through immense changes; where I would be living, being far from my family, a break up, and struggling to find who really were my good friends through it all. I sought the advice and comfort of my family. When I began school at Gonzaga, I often found myself focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and holding back tears. But, I started going to church again consistently, including doing Eucharistic ministering. I found this was an effort to find familiarity. I had now grown to associate the church, those traditions and those practices, with home. It was a community I could always find a place in, no matter where it was. And it had now offered me more than just a time to show up. It helped me reconnect with myself. I think this helped me realize more of the magnitude of the gifts I have been given; a home away from home, a religious education, and the freedom to develop my faith in my own way.
Now, I enjoy going to church when I can, but I also love finding spirituality in taking long walks, connecting with new and different people, and especially in healthy dialogue about beliefs. I find that this open and respectful conversation is pivotal to faith and religion. It offers new lenses, thoughts, ideas, and helps one discover what they stand for and what they might disagree with. To me, it's paramount to always be searching, to never say, "I believe this, this, and that's it." To be closed off, in almost any aspect, is selling yourself short. Especially when it comes to something like faith, which can dictate so much of your world. Even at this point, it's difficult for me to articulate exactly what I believe; I know I believe in a God, in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ; in life after death, in valuing life and in pure, absolute, unselfish love being one of the best things in the world.
So throughout my spiritual journey, I have experienced doubt, times of questioning, anger, pain, and frustration. This article couldn't possibly cover all the times I've been tested. But, even when I ask myself if all of this is even worth anything, it always seems lead, in one way or another, to me solidifying my beliefs even more. It's always changing, and I like it that way. I strive to continue searching for more spiritual self discovery and I hope you do too. I also hope this piece inspired you to consider looking at things a different way and to get out there to experience your own faith in places with people that trigger some good old fashioned thinking in you. Spirituality doesn't have an end point, it's a path to go down, there's still a lot I don't know and I'm excited to find out what lies ahead.